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What do Neurons, Hipsters and Entrepreneurs have in common?

They all are characterized by idiosyncratic patterns of non-conformity, yet they ultimately end up looking the same. Blush.

I recently read a colourful article referring to the work of Jonathan Touboul, a mathematician and neuroscientist who likened behavioural patterns of neurons with ‘hipsters’. Now that should get the attention of anyone with introverted geek tendencies. It then occurred to me that the patterns of the emerging wave of entrepreneurs may actually be explained by a similar trait and perhaps this raises some questions.

To quickly summarise the point Touboul makes, he explains how neurons systematically fire when other neurons around them are quiet. He then demonstrates how it can be mathematically shown how hipsters who try shun conformity, like neurons, due to critical time lags in realisation, ultimately end up looking the same in a consistent pattern of defined synchronicity.twitter

(Read the article here for a full explanation.)

If we extend this observation to the decision to break away from the ‘conformist’ path of a structured career and instead plunge into a lifestyle of frenetic entrepreneurship, are we simply seeing a pattern explained by the ‘hipster effect’? Of course we can accept that some are drawn to the attractions of wealth, fame or passion, but with respect to my hipster friends, it’s the non-conformity that allows them to break away from the pack and to stand a chance of achieving their personal interpretation of success.

So if we now apply this to the ‘hipster’ entrepreneur community, the question arises, are we seeing patterns of defined conformity re-emerging at a general level? Could there a herd mentality in thinking certain concepts or practices are optimal but actually may be delusional? One example could be the wide adoption of “textbook methodologies” such as, Eric Ries’ Lean startup approach – clearly not suitable in all cases. twitter Or we could point to the explosion in the number of new startups in a range of perplexing and sometimes indistinguishable endeavours. The hilarious HBO comedy series Silicon Valley parodies this this in its TechCrunch Disrupt Pitch scene where startups are looking to “revolutionise the [fill the gap]” and “make the world a better place”. (Watch the short clip here.)

The danger of conformity in business is quite nicely articulated by Peter Thiel in his presentation for Y Combinator as part of the How to Start a Startup series, “Competition is for Losers”. Amongst many points he illustrates how people are manipulated into believing competition is validation for their venture but ultimately this can lead to insane outcomes, for example, 20,000 sycophantic actors and actresses flocking to Hollywood where only a handful will ever taste success. twitterOr more relevant, the mass migration of hungry MBAs heading to Silicon Valley imminently before the last dotcom bubble crash in 2001. It’s a scary thought to think that that this may be the outcome of the over-glorification of entrepreneurship in emerging centres such as Singapore where I am based. (Watch the presentation here).

So as a light conclusion to this highly theoretical thought experiment, as far as widespread synchronicity in the brain is considered harmful, can or will this synchronicity in the entrepreneur space, lead to damaging outcomes to society? twitterLet’s hope not.

Thought Leader Profile – Ravi Patel [Singapore]
Ravi Patel is the co-founder of HomePay, a pioneering mobile consumer payment solution with focus on solving problems for families, households and micro communities in Asia and the Middle East. His 10 years working in strategy, business management and product development roles in global banks across international markets has fuelled his passion to build the next generation of financial products designed for the digital and internet consumer. HomePay does this for the first time in Singapore initially, through the decoupling of customer facing technologies and engagement models from banking platforms to ‘funk the hell’ out of the user experience. Related to this, Ravi is also deeply committed to reinventing education through easy access and high engagement digital platforms through his work with schools and social projects. Above all, he is all about social impact and sustainability.
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